WASHINGTON – Lawmakers of both parties told the nation's homeland security chief Thursday they doubt that plans for more agents, improved sensors and other measures to tighten U.S. borders against illegal immigrants and terrorists will work.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff agreed that his department is unlikely to completely curb the immigration flow, particularly at the Mexican border. But he said a crackdown this year appears to have deterred immigrants from trying to sneak into the country.
"If we're ever going to someday get to a comprehensive immigration policy, you have to succeed first at a border security plan," Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., said at a House Appropriations panel looking at immigration enforcement. "And no one that I know really has the confidence that you can do this, that we can do this."
Added Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., "I don't have any confidence in what you all are bringing to us, and I don't like that."
Chertoff pointed to charts showing the number of non-Mexican immigrants caught at the southwest border have dropped compared with last year. Illegal immigrants from Latin American countries besides Mexico had been spiking in recent years.
"I'm not saying we're going to deter everybody, but for the first time we are really raising the cost of coming across the border," Chertoff said.
The two-hour inquiry marked the latest congressional discussion of how to stem illegal immigration — a top election-year priority.
House leaders have planned 19 hearings on immigration, spanning 12 states and eight separate committees, for next month alone. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said one possibility might be to set of goal of cutting off up to 85 percent or 90 percent of illegal border traffic before officials focus on other immigration priorities.
"The American people demand the borders to be secure," Hastert said.
Congress last month approved a spending bill that included about $1.9 billion to tighten U.S. borders — including funds to put thousands of Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops along the Mexican border. The additional troops are part of a border crackdown strategy that will eventually include more motion sensors, surveillance flights and cameras.
The money will also pay for 40 miles of fencing and 140 miles of vehicle barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, Chertoff said. And the department is "finally bringing a big stick" to penalizing companies that illegally hire foreign workers and deporting immigrants already in the country.
An estimated 12 million immigrants are illegally living in the United States, and the Bush administration has urged Congress to enact a temporary worker program to allow at least some of them to remain. The Senate has approved legislation that generally delivers Bush's plan, but the House has delayed acting on it amid criticism that it would give amnesty to illegals.
Rep. John R. Carter, R-Texas, questioned whether the government could handle background checks and health exams for immigrants if the Senate plan was approved.
"What will occur is that the people who are in the trenches, doing the job, will become totally overwhelmed with the mission that we have given them, and therefore they won't do anything, and nothing will change except for more disaster," Carter said.
Chertoff noted that other alternatives — such as jailing 10 percent of illegal immigrants already in the country — could cost up to $10 billion a year.
"The round 'em up and detain 'em method is astronomically expensive," Chertoff said. Comparatively, the worker program, "while not cheap and absolutely requires some time to build and plan and deploy, is ultimately successful if we make sure we continue to enforce the law."